It’s the cardigan that’s the giveaway. For the duration of “The Outside Story,” Brooklyn filmmaker Charles (Brian Tyree Henry) wears the kind of roomy, shapeless, porridge-colored knitwear item that is established movie code for a hero in dire need of a full life reset. Thirtysomething and recently separated from his more glamorous girlfriend, Charles has settled into a schlubby, hermetic tailspin, poring obsessively over editing work and leaving his apartment only to collect takeout delivery. Casimir Koznowski’s lightweight character comedy is set in a pre-pandemic New York, when such behavior wasn’t universally familiar, and we weren’t all clinging to some food-stained version of that same cardigan: Everyone’s advice to Charles is go outside, not to stay in, which gives this modest enterprise an unintended wistful kick.
Or perhaps that’s simply the power of Henry. An actor who can magic personality and purpose from the most inconsequential of bit parts, he’s given welcome room to play here, in a film for once built entirely around his spry, thoughtful presence. Koznowski’s broadest writing becomes limber and loaded via his delivery; he even makes the cardigan look oddly commanding. Without his sly line readings and knack for shambling physical comedy, “The Outside Story” wouldn’t be nearly so watchable. Even with them, it plays as an agreeably extended sitcom pilot, with a slender premise — cranky homebody gets locked out of his apartment, hijinks ensue — that never leans into its most farcical possibilities, nor its most politically heated ones. For Henry, though, you’d tune in again.
Graduating to features after a lengthy career in documentary and narrative shorts, Nozkowski has evidently written his protagonist with some measure of personal understanding. A creatively blocked docmaker paying the bills by cutting obituary reels for TCM, Charles’ frustration doesn’t manifest itself in the sturm und drangof the standard movie artist, but as a placid, turned-inward funk, sustained if not cured by ample couch rest and burrito delivery. It’s not clear quite how long he was like this before his ex Isha (Sonequa Martin-Green, present mostly in radiant flashback) strayed, triggering their breakup, but it’s not hard to see why she did: That we remain sympathetic to his moping is testament to Henry’s unforced charisma.
If friends can’t get him out and about, fate can. One bright summer afternoon, he hastily dashes out of his apartment to chase after a delivery person, leaving not just his keys behind, but his shoes too. The door, of course, snaps shut; left out on the street in polka-dot socks, with his landlord far across town and issuing express instructions not to call a locksmith, Charles is forced to engage with the outside community he had previously shrugged off. Upstairs neighbors — including cranky swinger Andre (Michael Cyril Creighton) and plucky moppet Elena (Olivia Edward) — scarcely recognize him, while a passing traffic cop (Sunita Mani) assumes he’s a prospective intruder, with briefly fraught but finally innocuous consequences.
At several intervals, Nozkowski’s script hovers on the edge of saying something more pointed about racial profiling and police bias, before pulling back for a cuddlier resolution. “The Outside Story” isn’t out to disrupt its own sunny story of people needing people, often trusting its leading man to wrinkle Charles’ generally chill, hangdog demeanor with flickers of more active resentment and fear. Still, as he ambles between loosely connected day-in-the-life vignettes, hinging on either mistaken identity or good-neighbor bonding, sharper dramatic opportunities (and more riotous comic ones) are skipped over like cracks in the sidewalk. This is the kind of movie where our hero walks in on a polysexual threesome and nobody gets their pants off.
The film’s shyness around incident and conflict would matter less if its secondary characters were half as carefully drawn as its primary one. Despite an ensemble peppered with such valuable performers as Maria Dizzia and Asia Kate Dillon, the string of people Charles encounters on the outside merely run the gamut from cute to quirky to both. It’s hard not to suspect that a real-life day on the average Brooklyn sidewalk might yield some stranger, livelier activity than the clean-scrubbed block party that “The Outside Story” rustles up. On the other hand, then we wouldn’t be in Brian Tyree Henry’s smart, genial company, so it just about evens out.